Militarisation of youth in Bolivarian Venezuela

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Rafael Uzcátegui

In 1998 lieutenant colonel Hugo Chávez won the presidency of Venezuela, after staging a coup d’etat in 1992. For the first time in Venezuela’s democratic period (which began in 1958), a member of the Armed Forces was elected head of state. One of the consequences was that a new phase of progressive militarisation had begun in the country, initiated with a constitutional reform in 1999, which granted members of the Armed Forces the right to vote, in addition to other political rights, such as the right to be elected to public office in a public vote. Today, soldiers occupy different offices, such as ministers, governors, and mayors. Although there is a coalition of political parties that supports president Chávez, the Gran Polo Patriótico, there is a lot of evidence that shows that, in fact, the Armed Forces are Hugo Chávez's political organisation of trust to exercise political power.

The style of government of president Hugo Chávez, based on extreme centralisation of patriarchal power in his person, and on the promotion of a personality cult, has revived the historical militarist culture present in Venezuelan society, whose origins go back to the promotion of warrior values by Simón Bolivar in the founding legend of the state. The model of masculinity present in Venezuelan culture is a projection of so-called values of patriotism and bravery personified by Bolivar. Official history consists of the deeds of the “military heroes” of the independence, while the few women remembered are those who assisted acts of war in the conflict against the Spanish empire.

The Boliviarian government has promoted forms of popular organisation that adopted military names and structures, such as the “Organización de Batalla Electoral” (Organisation of Electoral Battle), “Frentes” (Fronts) and “Cuerpos de Combatientes” (Combatants Corps). Public functionaries and supporters of Hugo Chávez call him “comandante-presidente” (Commander-President), and the majority of slogans demonstrate some kind of military loyalty: “Order on this front” and “knee on the ground”. Until 2011 the phrase “Motherland, socialism, or death” was used both in the Armed Forces and in public institutions.

Militarism in education

In 1981 the subject “pre-military instruction” was added to the curriculum of the last two years of secondary education in public schools, prior to university. However, not until 1999 did this subject become mandatory in both public and private education. Theoretical classes about the origins of the State and the nation are mixed with practical exercises of military marches (called “military drill”), exercises in survival and military confrontation, such as describing the weapons used by the military (sometimes putting together and dismantling a pistol can also be part of the course).

The Boliviarian government has created new higher education institutions, such as the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (UBE) and the Universidad Nacional de las Artes (UNEARTE), however, their disciplinary rules look more like those of barracks than those of a university. At UBE student unions are prohibited, while at UNEARTE many behaviours are classified as lack of respect for authority and sanctioned with expulsion. Also, an old university exclusively for the military forms today part of the system of public universities: the Universidad Nacional Experimental Politécnica de la Fuerza Armada (UNEFA), enrolment in which has seen significant growth since 2004, increasing from 2,500 students to 230,000 students today. This effort of inclusion of students has as its counterpart that the students receive a militarised education with different rituals which are more appropriate in military barracks, such as singing the national anthem before classes, etc., forming part of it.

Several urban and rural paramilitary organisations in the country support the government and have young people among its members. Human rights organisations have denounced that Colombian groups such as the FARC and ELN, and the Venezuelan Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación (FBL) practise forced recruitment of adolescents at the Venezuelan border . The Constitution of 1999 recognises the right to conscientious objection in an ambiguous way. For lack of employment and other opportunities, military service constitutes a source of employment and social ascent for young people from the poorer sectors of society. According to the national budget of 2012, the Ministry of Defence receives 32 times more money than the Ministry of Youth.

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